The Kennedy Center

Overture to Ruy Blas, Op. 95

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

By 1839, four years after he had been appointed director of the Gewandhaus concerts, Felix Mendelssohn had established himself as Leipzig's leading musician. To lend some star quality to their benefit performance in March of Victor Hugo's 1838 drama, Ruy Blas, the directors of the local Theatrical Pension Fund asked Mendelssohn if he would be so kind as to provide them (gratis, of course) some incidental music, perhaps an overture and a "romance." Mendelssohn read through Hugo's melodrama of passion, intrigue, subterfuge, and tragedy in a poor German translation, pronounced it "detestable" and "beneath contempt," and decided to write for the directors only the "romance" in the form of a little piece for chorus. They sent him a letter of appreciation, mentioning that they should have given a man with such a very busy schedule as his more time to complete an overture. Mendelssohn was a bit rankled by the implication that he had sacrificed some of his youthful compositional celerity for the experience of maturity. "This put me on my mettle," he wrote. "I reflected on the matter the same evening, and began my score [for the Overture]. On Wednesday there was a concert rehearsal, which occupied the whole forenoon. Thursday, the concert itself, and yet the Overture was in the hands of the copyist early on Friday; it was rehearsed three times on Monday in the concert room, tried over once in the theater, and given that evening as an introduction to the odious play." This fine piece, then, was composed in less than three days.

The plot of Ruy Blas, set at the 18th-century court of Charles III of Spain, was summarized by Edward Downes: "A Spanish grandee tries to disgrace the Queen of Spain by involving her in a love affair with his valet, Ruy Blas. Disguised as a Spanish nobleman, Ruy Blas does in fact become her lover and prime minister as well. But when his master tries to blackmail the Queen into abdicating, Ruy Blas kills his master, takes poison himself, confesses his guilt to the Queen and dies with her forgiveness." Though the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey allowed that such stage machinations would make a swell opera, Mendelssohn apparently paid little attention to limning this pageant of thud and blunder in his Overture—he said that he preferred to think of this piece not as the Overture to Ruy Blas but rather as the Overture to the Theatrical Pension Fund Benefit. At any rate, he created here a fine example of the concert overture, varied in its moods, close-knit in its structure, ingratiating in its melodic and harmonic felicities, and inventive in its sonorities. "There are sweep and spontaneity in the melodic flow, an urgency in the march of simple harmonies, a freshness and brilliance in the orchestration," wrote Downes, "which have made this one of Mendelssohn's most popular works."